Wednesday, May 1, 2013


            Sources, Correcting Errors, and the Journey of NEOX 238

I’ve not posted in a long time, but I have been doing more research for the back story of the North Bay Lines.  In an attempt to build a more accurate freight car fleet, I’ve been combing through the copies of the materials I gathered at the National Archives San Bruno Branch last fall.  I also recently transcribed the 1936 ATSF Statement of Steam Locomotive Assignments to a searchable spreadsheet.  In both cases, I was fortunate to have digital copies of the originals from the respective archives.  Usually archival materials are considered primary sources: contemporaneous (made at the time), by those who took part in whatever is recorded.  But some times you have secondary sources (derived from primary sources) mixed in with the primary ones.  And then, you have what we as members of the general public and rail fans most often encounter, tertiary sources, compilations of historic facts compiled by others separated by time and experience from the original event.  My spread sheets are tertiary sources.  They are useful to us and they allow us to “know” a lot more about some particularly arcane bit of history such as the journey of NEOX 238, but they may contain errors, certainly contain judgments, and if used enough, get accepted as “gospel” by the community.  Two well documented examples of errors propagating and repeating in derived works are the “drawbars” between Santa Fe’s FTA and FTB units and the “blind center drivers” on the Santa Fe’s 3800 class 2-10-2s.  Neither of these widely accepted “facts” is true, yet they are continually raised in support of someone’s argument in rail fan discussions.  And worse, they have a tendency to crop up as inaccuracies in otherwise exquisite models.

We as amateur historians have a responsibility to future generations of scholars and rail fans to get things as right as we can, acknowledge errors and correct them, and preserve as best we can information for those who will discover the joys and grit of this hobby of ours when we are the unknowns to them that we are grateful to today for the images of days long past.

So lets take a look at the journey of NEOX 238 and see what it can tell us about how we can better document history and have some fun with our railroading.  Digging through the files of the Office of Defense Transportation located in the National Archives branch at San Bruno I found a file with a “Tank Car Report” of the interchange between the Santa Fe and the SP at Port Chicago, California covering the last 10 days of November 1944.  PAYDIRT!  Here is a document that covers one of the stations I model, during the time I operate that I had almost no information on before.  Wow, what a lucky find.  And most of the information is great a table of the cars interchanged with Car Number, Contents, Origin, Destination, Billing Date, Interchange Arrival Date, Destination Arrival Date, Placement and Release Dates, Date Returned to Interchange, and Final Destination.  With this one document I was able to get an idea about the volume of tank car interchange at what I had previously considered to be only a point to exchange munitions as the Naval Magazine was located there, infamous for the explosion that destroyed a couple of ships and the SP depot and killing many of the black seamen who were employed as stevedores.  Here was a good reason to run something besides strings of box cars.  Dated 12 December 1944, written by ICC service agent Orion A. Westlake, the document is certainly contemporaneous and offers much seemingly original information with its list of cars, contents and dates.  And some of it, such as his documentation of the SP backlog at Bayshore is of a primary source nature.  But I think this is an example of a secondary source in the archives.  I don’t think Orion sat at the interchange and took his own notes for 10 days and then wrote them up two weeks later.  He was most likely tasked to find out why tank cars were being delayed at this particular location and he documented what he found.  We don’t know his sources, but it was likely the actual waybills and or junction and station records.  According to his report, NEOX 238 billed on 9 November at Atreco Texas with a load of Cumene for Avon, California.  From the earlier narrative in the document we learn that the consignee was the Tidewater Associated Oil Company.  We can infer from other sources about the origin that the Shipper was the Atlantic Refining Company and that the originating RR was the KCS.  Likewise, we can infer that the empty consignee was the Phillips Petroleum Company, also served by KCS.  Since arrival and departure at Port Chicago were on the ATSF, a likely interchange with KCS common to both routes was Beaumont, Texas.  During the war, (and this is why we even have this document) tank cars were in tight supply and managed as a critical national asset by the government.  With whatever delays in moving to Beaumont, she joined a group of other tanks billed the same route, made a fast journey across Texas in hot freights through Silsbee, Somerville, Temple, Brownwood, Sweetwater, and Lubbock, before arriving on the transcon at Clovis.  From there she ran west to Belen where she ran along with the myriad of MAIN trains running as extra sections of the Chief, Scout, Grand Canyon and Fast Mail through Barstow.  She made good time over Tehachapi, and was expedited up the Valley to Stockton.  There she probably switched into a local for delivery at Port Chicago or she continued as part of a Port Chicago block in the SCX bound for Richmond.  On arrival at Port Chicago on the 20th, she was handled expeditiously by both the SP and Tidewater, moving to Avon the same day, placed at the Refinery and released for return the next day on the 21st arriving back at Port Chicago on the 22nd where she continued back to the Gulf coast and further loads in support of the war effort.  But what did she look like?  How large a car? Capacity?  To find those answers, we turn to a contemporaneous secondary source, the ORER dated October 1945.  There we find entries for nearly all of the car numbers listed in the report, but not NEOX 238.  What gives?  Not only is there not an entry for that car, NEOX was not an assigned reporting mark in Oct 45.  OK, let’s check our April 43 edition.  Same result—NEOX isn’t assigned to any private car owner.  What to do?  The document clearly shows N as the leading character in the reporting mark.  But that mark is bogus, not assigned at that time.  Do we delete the whole entry?  That doesn’t make sense because it will skew the quantities of cars handled and the types of loads and destinations.  So that’s not a good answer.  Do we leave it as is and say nothing?  I don’t think so, because somebody in the future will cite my work as reason the ORER of that era was “wrong” and should have included NEOX, their favorite imagined “North East Oil Company”, a total fabrication.  I don’t want another FT “drawbar” controversy, so bad idea.  Foot note it that it’s bogus?  Might be OK, but most folks won’t look and it may still have the bad results that leaving totally alone can have.  Is there another way?  Maybe.  We can not conclusively determine the truth without finding source of Orion’s information, but we can make an educated guess.  At this point, we are certain that some kind of error crept into this secondary source because it has a car number that did not exist.  Without either the original waybill or interchange record, it will require judgment on our part.  We know the car in question is a tank, as that is the subject of the report.  We know it is most likely privately owned, as at that time, nearly all the tanks in interchange were.  We also can assume that part if not most of the number is correct as the rest of the car numbers in the report check out.  So what went wrong, and how do we fix it?  The true original information was most likely hand written if it came from a station or junction record.  The waybill could have been also, but more likely typewritten.  Either way, something didn’t get transcribed correctly from the sighting of the car to the jumbo book, the jumbo to the original hand tally for the report, or the typist who mostly succeeded in deciphering Orion’s penciled notations to make it pretty for Washington.  Where ever it occurred, the error made it onto a piece of paper on 12 December 1944 and has sat there since, waiting for propagation or correction.  No other similar reporting marks begin with N.  That was my first guess, and not a good one.  And all the private owners ended in X in those days, so that wasn’t much help.  Then I scanned through the assigned reporting marks tables in the ORER.  Looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack with predictable results, none.  But it could have paid off if I’d gotten lucky, as the next search illustrates.  Then I decided to look for similar reporting marks in the report itself.  But I used my previous efforts of transcription to excel, not the original images converted to PDF.  Using the auto filter function on the Mark column, I looked at my possible selections, UTLX, GATX, COSX, etc.  Then at the bottom of the column in the dropdown box, I saw it: WEOX.  White Eagle Division of Socony-Vacuum.  Car WEOX 1059 billed on the 4th and arrived on the 25th also from Atreco, Texas.  Could NEOX really be WEOX?  I think so!  N looks like a W without the left most down stroke.  Could it be that a scribbled W was perceived as an N?  WEOX 238 is in a series documented in the ORER, a two compartment 8,000 gallon, 100,000 pound tank.  It fits, it’s plausible, and other variations of the reporting mark and number don’t.  So I will use WEOX 238 in the spreadsheet.  I will also put in a note about what I did to change the original data for the benefit of anyone who cares why my tertiary source differs from what I found in the report.  As a bonus, I think that I’ll model that two compartment car.  It will add visual interest to both my freight trains and the operations of the interchange:  A small difference in that string of black tank cars.   So alas, NEOX 238 didn’t take a journey in the fall of 44 after all, but we can reasonably infer that WEOX 238 did!

Here's a photo of MOBX 228 graciously supplied by Richard Hendrickson.  The WEOX cars were later re-marked as MOBX and this is a very likely sister.  

An aside, looking for the above, I just found a car that I’ll have to build: True’s Oil Company TOCX 10, a 6,429 Gallon 60K capacity car out of Spokane, Washington.  True is our 5 year old Andalusian Filly who has been on a diet including Rice Bran Oil.  

Who say’s that research is dry and boring?  I can represent it with a small silver tank on arch bar trucks.  I can route it from a processor in Stockton to Cotati via Richmond and Tiburon and use the car float as well.  And my horse will have the oil she needs depicted on the layout.  

This closes with one more coincidence or serendipitous occurrence in life; a fitting inside joke that melds two of my hobbies: living and iron horses.